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United Nations Environment Programme
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Freshwater Management Series No. 7

Phytotechnologies

A Technical Approach in Environmental Management

Introduction - An Ecosystem's Perspective >

B. Ecological Engineering and Ecotechnologies

Historically, environmental problems have arisen primarily because of inappropriate decisions and a lack of understanding of the impact of these decisions upon the environment. New approaches must be developed and novel technological developments and engineering must function together in an integrated manner in order for social, economic and environmental benefits to be realized. Ecological engineering is an example of such an integrated approach.

Ecological engineering practices can help conserve and restore the environment through the integration of engineering and ecological principles. An ecologically sound approach to engineering takes into account that nature responds systematically, continuously and cumulatively. Ecological engineering operates within the natural system rather than infringing on or overcoming it. Solutions are developed to be as flexible and forgiving as possible, thus avoiding drastic and irreversible consequences when something goes wrong. To support such an approach, it is important to acquire knowledge and understanding about the dynamics of ecosystems and their particular vulnerabilities.

Ecological engineering and related ecotechnologies are dependent on the self-designing capabilities of ecosystems and nature. When changes occur, natural systems shift and food chains reorganize. As individual species are selected and others are not, a new dynamic order ultimately emerges that is usually better suited to the environment superimposed on it. This focus on, and use of, biological species, communities, and ecosystems distinguishes ecological engineering and related ecotechnologies from the more conventional engineering technology approaches which seldom consider integrative ecosystem-based approaches.

Ecological engineering involves identifying those biological systems that are most adaptable to human needs and those human needs that are most adaptable to existing ecosystems, while recognising that it is counterproductive to eliminate or even disturb natural ecosystems unless absolutely necessary. Ecological engineering and ecotechnology applications also emphasize understanding of the entire ecosystem rather than components of the system in isolation from one another. Decision support tools such as modelling and cost -benefit analysis are important, as ecosystem solutions cannot be determined by simply adding up the parts to make a whole. Table 2 provides some examples of ecological engineering and ecotechnology applications.

Table 2. Some Examples of Ecological Engineering and Ecotechnology Applications

Application Examples
Ecosystems are used to reduce or solve a pollution problem that would otherwise be harmful to other ecosystems. Wastewater recycling in wetlands; sludge recycling
Ecosystems are imitated or copied to reduce or solve a resource problem.

Reconstructed wetlands; integrated fishponds

The recovery of an ecosystem is nurtured after significant disturbance. Surface coal mine restoration; lake and river restoration; restoration of hazardous waste sites
Existing ecosystems are modified in an ecologically sound way to solve an environmental problem. Biomanipulation of species; biological control of eutrophication processes
Ecosystems are used for the benefit of humans without destroying the ecological balance. Sustainable agro-ecosystems; sound renewable resource harvesting

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